Books: Taken in by appearances

The right cover can transform a novel's fortunes and win its author new readers.
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The Independent Culture
In common with other media, publishers are chasing the young. So today books have to compete with CDs, magazines, newspapers, the internet and even computer games for the attention of consumers faced with more choice than ever before but with less time to choose. Each year in the general fiction market more than 4,000 titles are published. If you don't have a big-name author to sell the book then you have to rely on the jacket.

Helen Fraser, managing director of Penguin's fiction list, says: "People are much more conscious of design these days and it's a very fashion-driven market: we can no longer rely on having the same style of cover for the next 15 years. So we're constantly having to go back and freshen up the look."

Obvious though it seems, the realisation that a good cover can help sell a book seems to have dawned on the book industry only recently. In place of the raised three-inch- high letters and silver foil that used to proliferate are brighter and bolder colours, starker images and more subtle typefaces. Covers are becoming less fussy. The paper quality of jackets has improved. Books now feel smoother to the touch and the quality of the reproduction is such that you think you've got a hardback in your hands for half the price. Even the thriller market, one of the last bastions of the "dripping dagger" cover, is being revolutionised. The cover doesn't have to tell the story on the front these days; it's all about an arresting image. Publishers are using stylish packaging as a means of getting their authors across to new audiences. Look at John le Carre: as his work has undergone a re-evaluation, his publishers have exploited this by releasing a larger- format version with black and white photographs on the front to position a le Carre as the sort of classic that would not look out of place next to Graham Greene on your shelf. At the same time, the more familiar thriller look is used for the smaller mass-market editions.

This summer, the paperback mass-market version of Alex Garland's The Tesseract is released, this time without the original sinister red and black cover. Apparently, book- buyers have a short memory and will regard the revamped version with fresh eyes. This spring, William Boyd's back catalogue will be given the day-glo treatment that worked so well for his last book, Armadillo. His old covers are considered by the publishers to be too middle-aged, while the lurid green cover on Armadillo was judged to have reached a wider and younger audience.

John Hamilton, the art director responsible for Penguin's fiction list, lines the walls of his office with images plucked at random from the magazines, newspapers and CD covers that litter his floor. His view is that unless you are up to date with the latest trends in the design industry, you'll never "connect" with the young: "They don't see books as sexy compared to other media. I look upon Vogue, Nintendo, The Face and iD magazine as the competition, not just other books."

Last year Hamilton was given the task of repackaging 20 titles from Penguin's Twentieth Century Classic list, which includes such names as Truman Capote and Anthony Burgess. He reduced the format, ditched the photographic covers and enrolled Intro, tomato and Public Art, hip companies that had never designed a book jacket before, to create something fresh and interesting.

The result was the "Penguin Essentials" with their stylish and distinctive covers, which evidently struck a chord with style-conscious buyers. Sales were substantial, and 20 more titles are due out in February, with more to follow in the summer. The era of visual marketing in the publishing world has begun in earnest.

A Notting Hill art gallery wants to exhibit the Penguin covers; the jeans company Diesel uses them in their window displays and Waterstone's is planning an exhibition of seminal book covers of the past century in its stores later this year. Why? Because, says marketing manager Noel Murphy, people regard books as beautiful objects and they love to collect them.

Next year Duckworth launches a new imprint called Duck Editions. According to publisher Tom Headley, the new range of 12 books will project a more modern, youth- orientated image. He has enlisted the support of designer Sebastian Conran to create a "family" of books that Duckworth hopes that will one day rival big names like Penguin and Virago. "The brand is just one of the things that people use to make their choice. We hope our designs will establish Duck as a brand that people will come to regard as eclectic and interesting," says Conran.

The books will share a common design identity, a new size and a front cover with a single uninterrupted image with the Duckworth colophon - a duck's head - on a banner at the bottom. Conran hopes the content of the books will be communicated in a bold and original way. The striking cover of Valentine's Day, a collection of stories about avenging women introduced by Alice Thomas Ellis, features a gory Old Master painting of the beheading of St John the Baptist. For the venerable Duckworth, once home to D H Lawrence and Virginia Woolf, this new imprint is a major innovation, and one which relies on a strong look and identity to launch it.

The deputy manager of Fourth Estate, the publisher which brought us Dava Sobel's compact bestseller Longitude, wants to explore new formats, as well as attractive covers. Stephen Page has trawled Europe and come up with formats he believes will attract a person who might consider buying a hardback, but at pounds 15 or more can't quite afford it. (The craze, a few years ago, for cheap mini-books, led by Penguin 60s, also originated in Europe.) Page hopes that competitively priced, well-designed pounds 10 hardbacks will encourage people to try Fourth Estate's new authors and at the same time pander to their aspirations. "It's surprising what difference a couple of millimetres makes to the feel of a book," says Page. First to benefit is The Hours by Michael Cunningham, a novel based on Virginia Woolf's years in Richmond in the 1920s. Its unusual size - somewhere between a hardback and a paperback original - was borrowed from Woolf's own Hogarth Press.

Elsewhere, Jonathan Cape is releasing a thriller called Vienna Blood by Adrian Matthews: the title will only appear on a sticky label with the bar code. Another Cape novel, Powder by Kevin Sampson, resembles a box of detergent. Last year, Bloomsbury launched Rupert Thompson's Soft, a satire on soft-drink marketing, as though it were a drink - logo, coverlines and all. Also last year, Cape packaged Irvine Welsh's Filth in four different colours. According to retailer word-of-mouth, the green cover sold the most, though there is no way of verifying this because all the books carried the same barcode.

It's all a bit gimmicky but the publishers say it works. Captain Corelli's Mandolin was just another literary hardback until it was relaunched as a large-format paperback with Jeff Fisher's now widely replicated jacket design. It has sold close to a million copies. Such is the success of Fisher's covers that he now has a one-man show of his art at the Pentagram Gallery in London. His work on jackets is so prolific - he's also responsible for the Bloomsbury Classic series - that even he recognises his style must change. "I could fall into the trap of always being asked to do the same work so I constantly have to change to keep up," he says.

But perhaps the most telling demonstration of the power of a great cover is provided by William Sutcliffe's comic novel about backpacking in India, Are You Experienced?. The first paperback cover, with a leering and irrelevant cartoon face of an Indian film star, was replaced by a more alluring shot of a lithe, naked female midriff with a bejewelled belly-button. The new-style paperback has now sold 92,000 copies - a 10-fold increase on the original. The rewards for getting it right can be lavish.